Tag Archives: Case Files of Justis Fearsson

Professional Wednesday: What I Learned During a Recent Visit With Claude Monet

Last week, Nancy and I were traveling for her work, and we had the opportunity to spend a day and a half in New York City. We had dinners with our older daughter, we attended some university functions, Nancy had finance meetings, and I had part of a day to myself.

As I have mentioned here recently, I am trying to figure out where to go with my writing. (And allow me to take this opportunity to thank those of you who weighed in with opinions about what project I should take on next. Many of you want to see continuations of existing series — Thieftaker was the most popular request, followed by Fearsson and Radiants. Not surprisingly, the new project I mentioned as a possible choice received little love. The unknown is bound to attract less notice. But the most heartening element of the responses I received was the repeated assurance that you would welcome and read whatever I choose to tackle going forward. And for that, I am grateful beyond words.)

As I continue to grapple with this decision, I thought I might find inspiration in art, and so, on a bright, crisp Monday morning in New York City, I walked north along Fifth Avenue to 83rd Street and the grand entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I didn’t know precisely what I sought in the museum, but I trusted the instinct that drove me there. Much the way our bodies sometime crave certain types of food — salty snacks, or protein rich foods — so I believe our brains can crave input of a specific type. I felt a strong need to look at the beauty of creative endeavor.

Specifically, I wanted to see the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Degas, Manet, Morisot, Cezanne, Pissarro, Cassatt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and my favorite, Claude Monet. As a historian (and a camera bug), I find the development of Impressionism (in the latter third of the nineteenth century) fascinating. It coincided with the invention and popularization of photography. Suddenly, artists were freed from the need to create images that were accurate and lifelike. A photograph could do that. Instead, artists could begin to experiment with color, with light and shadow, with texture, with the self-conscious use of brushstroke and palette knife.

Claude Monet,  Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight) 1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight) 1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Monet was fascinated in particular with the way light and color changed from hour to hour, day to day, season to season. He painted series after series, experimenting with images of the same subject matter painted at dawn and dusk and midday. Haystacks on farms, poplar trees in the French countryside, water lilies, the Houses of Parliament and Charing Cross Bridge in London, and two of my favorite series: the façade of the Cathedral at Rouen, and the Japanese footbridge and pond at his home in Giverny.

Claude Monet,  Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Claude Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Seeing these paintings last week filled me with joy, with a sense of calm and contentment. It was glorious. I lingered in the museum for hours longer than I had intended to.

But what does this have to do with writing? Why would it warrant discussion in a Professional Wednesday post?

Honestly, I am still trying to figure out the answers to those questions. But I think it comes down to this: Creativity demands that we reexamine those things we have taken for granted, the things we have accepted as routine. The daily dance of light across the front to a building, the shape and forms we see each day. But creativity also asks that, on occasion, we rethink everything about our art. Imagine having been trained as a classical artist in the mid-nineteenth century, only to have every assumption about visual art overturned by the invention of a light-capturing box.

In the course of my lifetime (and I’m not THAT old . . .), we have sent spacecraft beyond the pull of earth’s gravity and out to the edges of our solar system. We have created lenses capable of peering through space and time to the very beginnings of our universe. We have replaced the rotary phones that were wired into our homes with untethered devices that take pictures, monitor our finances, store our music, and handle computational tasks that used to challenge machines so big they needed to be housed in warehouse-sized spaces.

We have seen the impossible become consumer-ready, the fantastical turned mundane. And as storytellers, we have had to stretch to come up with ideas that will surprise and captivate and satisfy. That stretch doesn’t necessarily imply pursuit of the increasingly outlandish. Rather, I would argue, it has forced us to reconsider simplicity, to infuse the familiar with qualities that make us marvel or recoil.

And as I search for my next spark of inspiration, I find myself wondering what will be for me the literary equivalent of watching color and shadow transform a garden pond and the reflections of a footbridge. Once upon a time, I worried that I would run out of ideas for stories, that I would complete a series, only to discover that it was the last one, that my creative well had run dry. Now, as I approach the big Six-Oh, my fear is that I will run out of time before I have completed all the tales I wish to write. I’m don’t worry about failing to find a new idea; I worry about choosing the wrong one and wasting time on something I don’t love.

Late in his life, Monet began to lose his sight. And still he worked, learning to create images of power and beauty and drama despite seeing color and form with less clarity. Creativity finds a way. Inspiration carries us past obstacles both physical and emotional.

Maybe, ultimately, that was the reminder I needed when I stepped into the Met. I still don’t know what I’ll be writing next. I do know that the challenges in my life have not gone away and won’t anytime soon. But I am a creator, and I still crave inspiration. So, I will consider, and I will settle on a project, and I will share with you the stories that stir my passions.

And I wish you the same.

Keep writing, keep creating.

Professional Wednesday: In Which I Ask You, What Should I Write Next?

As I discussed at length in last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I have recently completed a first draft of the third book in my contemporary Celtic urban fantasy, The Chalice Wars. The novel needs to sit for a while before I can do a final revise-and-polish and send it off to my editor — six weeks or so, I would think. And since the first book has not yet been copyedited and proofed, since the second book still needs to go through a round of revisions and then the entire production process, and since the third book is still wet behind the ears, I have plenty of work left to do on this series.

Thanks to the successful Kickstarter campaign Zombies Need Brains ran late in the summer, I also have a new anthology, Artifice and Craft, to co-edit with my good friend Edmund Schubert. We already have more than 150 submissions for the anthology, so that work is bound to keep me busy through the end of the year and well into 2023. I also have a short story to write for one of the other anthologies, and I have editing clients in my free-lance business queue.

But beyond the short story, which should only take me a week or two to complete, I have no idea what I am going to write next. None.

Yes, I have ideas. Many.

What are they? Funny you should ask.

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)One idea is to write my next Thieftaker novel, either in the form of a trio of novellas, like I did with The Loyalist Witch, or as a simple novel. In the Thieftaker novel timeline, the Revolutionary War hasn’t even started yet. There is lots and lots more I can do with Ethan and Kannice and Sephira.

I have also considered going back to the Case Files of Justis Fearsson series, another contemporary urban fantasy that I began in the mid 2010s with Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, and Shadow’s Blade. I LOVE these books and have missed writing in Justis Fearsson’s world. I have several ideas brewing for that world.His Father's Eyes, by David B. Coe

I have long wanted to return to my five book Winds of the Forelands series and the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, to revise and re-release those eight novels. They are among my best stories, and they have been out of print for far too long. I envision an “Author’s Edit” re-issue, along the lines of what I did with the LonTobyn Chronicle back in 2016.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)I want to write at least one more Radiants book. Actually, I would like to write several more. Radiants and Invasives are, to my mind, the two best books I’ve written to date, and I still would love to see these books gain come commercial traction so that I can justify writing more of them.

And then there are the new ideas . . .

I have one idea for a space opera series (yes, you read that right), set on a pair of terraformed planets. The plot involves intrigue, mystery, romance, and vengeance, and it is actually based on the work of a well-known, much-beloved, and for-now-secret 19th century novelist. I’m excited about this one. (Actually, I’m excited about all these ideas, which is why I’m considering them in the first place.)

I have a middle grade novel that I first wrote back in 2010 or so, when my kids were much younger. The idea still sings to me, though I know the book needs a good deal of work. But I love the concept and I adore the characters. And I think I would enjoy writing for kids.

My good friend A.J. Hartley has been trying for years to get me to write a non-fantasy, non-supernatural, straight-ahead thriller. He thinks I’d enjoy it. He thinks I’d be good at it. And I will admit I have some ideas percolating along these lines as well. Of all the projects I’m thinking about, this one probably has the most commercial potential, which is not the only consideration, but I do this for a living, so . . . .

And finally, I have considered taking all the Professional Wednesday and Writing Wednesday posts I have written since 2020 and collecting the best of them in a new writing how-to book. I have more than enough material, and I think some people would like to see the advice I have offered gathered in a single, convenient volume.

So there we are. Those are the things I’m thinking about right now. (I should add that I can’t guarantee I won’t have five more ideas tomorrow.)

What ideas appeal to you? Feel free to Tweet at me, or to comment in my Facebook Group! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

In the meantime, keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Listening To My Own Work

SPELL BLIND, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)About seven years ago, I received out of the blue, an email from the actor Bronson Pinchot, who is probably best known for playing the role of “Balki” in the sitcom Perfect Strangers. He was, by then, enjoying a successful career as a voice actor, and he was writing to me because he was about to return to the studio to begin recording his reading of the second Justis Fearsson book, His Father’s Eyes. He wanted to know what I had thought of his treatment of the first book in the series, Spell Blind, and if there were things I wanted him to do differently with the second book.

HIS FATHER'S EYES, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)I was thrilled to get the email, and also impressed by the care he was taking with my books. But I wasn’t really able to give him the feedback he was after. “I have heard great things about your performance from friends, as well as from online reviews,” I told him. “I’ve listened to the sample on the Audible site and very much like your take on the character’s voice. The truth is, though, I am incapable of listening to others read my work. It has nothing to do with your performance, or any one else’s, for that matter, and everything to do with hearing the flaws in my own writing, which I find excruciating.”

This prompted a reply from him that was as amusing as it was courteous. Saying we were “birds of a feather,” he admitted that he had never been able to watch any of his on-screen performances for much the same reason. And there we left it.

Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago, when I attended ConCarolinas. I have been thinking recently of returning to the Justis Fearsson series to write more books in that world. I loved those characters, and really enjoyed writing contemporary urban fantasy, and I have felt for some time now that there is more I can do with the storyline. But I need to re-familiarize myself with the existing works, and I have been eager to start going back through the books.

SHADOW'S BLADE, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)As it happens, I have from Audible the MP3 CD of the third and final book in the original trilogy, Shadow’s Blade. Since I also had in my immediate future two seven-hour drives, I thought I would go ahead and listen to the book. How bad could it be, right? Even if I hated what I heard (to reiterate, I wasn’t worried about Pinchot’s performance, but rather my writing), I could take solace in knowing that I was now seven years and at least eight novels more experienced than I was when I wrote the book.

I want to make clear here that prior to this, I had never, ever listened to one of my novels as an audiobook. Never. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Well, first of all, I loved Bronson Pinchot’s performance. His interpretation of most of the characters was spot-on. His pacing and mood and approach were terrific. I would be delighted to have him narrate more of my work in the future.

And I will also say that I enjoyed my own writing. I was far enough removed from the process of writing the book that I actually got caught up in the story, but was also familiar enough (still) with the book that I could anticipate key scenes and remember lines of which I was particularly fond at the time I wrote them. It was a little like rewatching a favorite movie, but more intimate.

Earlier today, I reached out to Bronson Pinchot, after all these years, and thanked him for his marvelous interpretation of the book. We had a very nice exchange; it turns out he has his own recording studio and business now, so if I want to hire him to do future books, I can.

But the larger point of this story is this: There is nothing wrong with pausing to take pride in our creative accomplishments. Were there passages in the book that I would write differently now? Absolutely. I noticed places where I could have trimmed, where I explained too much, where I should have left stuff unsaid, or presented the material differently. Overall, though, I was struck by how well the book held up. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed writing Justis Fearsson novels. And I was reminded as well that, generally speaking, I am pretty good at this writing thing.

I say that without fear that it will sound like bragging or conceit. Well, okay, I say it with just a little fear that it will sound like bragging or conceit . . . . But as I have suggested in previous Wednesday posts, writing is a difficult profession and if we don’t give ourselves a little credit now and then, an occasional pat on the back for a job well done, no one else is going to do it for us. I wrote a good book. Instead of finding the experience of listening to it excruciating, as I feared I might, I found it really fun and very satisfying. I wound up energized and even more eager to return to that world and write more Fearsson stories.

So, if you are feeling down about a current project, put it away for a while, work on something else, and then return to it and read it fresh. Or, if you are generally lacking in confidence right now, take a moment to go back and look at some old work that you’ve set aside for one reason or another. Sure, you might see elements of the storytelling and writing that need improving. But chances are you’ll also rediscover what you loved about the projects in the first place. And there is definitely value in that.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: What We Can Learn About Writing From a Horny Bluebird

I got you with the title, didn’t I? I thought I might.

The horny bluebird in question lives in our yard and is so hopped up on testosterone, so eager to make himself THE player among breeding bluebirds in the area, that he has spent much of the spring attacking reflections of himself in a window downstairs and the driver’s side mirror on my Prius. The latter is the main target of his pugilistic outbursts. The mirror itself is marked with marks from bird’s beak, and the entire side of the car is dripped with bird poop. Charming, I know.

Every day for weeks he has attacked his own image, flailing at his reflection again and again and again, never seeming to tire of a battle he can’t hope to win. He is relentless, almost mindlessly so. The cute female bluebird making googly eyes at him (birds do that, you know) is HIS, and he will brook no competition for her affections. He will not surrender, no matter how many times he smacks his bill against something immovable and invincible.

Perhaps you can see forming here the beginnings of my theme for the post. But do I believe you should emulate or reject the bluebird’s behavior? Is it an example of folly, or admirable perseverance?

Both, actually.

On the one hand, I really do admire the bird’s tenacity. Sure, he’s a bit crazed, and he’s trying to drive off another “bird” that doesn’t actually exist. But he’s doing so with gusto. And the fact is, when it comes to dealing with the business side of a writing career, all of us need to be something of a horny bluebird. (Yeah, that is a line that might well haunt me for the rest of my career . . .)

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I would love to be a bestselling author. And with each new project I take on, I wonder if this might finally be the literary vehicle that gets me there. Thieftaker, Fearsson, the time travel books, the Radiants franchise. I had high hopes for all of them. All of them were critical successes. None of them has taken me to that next level commercially. So does that mean I should give up?

Of course not. I am now working on my Celtic urban fantasy, and I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t hold out the same hope for this series.

Nearly every writer, I believe, has goals they attack with similar ferocity and persistence. Some folks are looking for that first short story sale, and they keep sending out stories. Some are trying to sell a first novel. Others have done well with small presses but want desperately to break in with a New York publisher. I judge no one for their ambitions, just as I have no intention of abandoning my own.

Rather, I would encourage every writer reading this to keep up the fight. Yes, you may feel like a bird hammering away at its own reflection, but I truly believe the fight itself is worth waging. For me, at least, pursuing my goals no matter what keeps my work fresh, energizes me, and keeps a slight chip on my shoulder, which I think helps me maintain a necessary level of motivation. So battle on!

At the same time that I see value in the bluebird’s example for some business purposes, however, I think it is far less helpful in other contexts. And when I originally hit on this as a topic for today’s post, it was this aspect of the analogy that caught my imagination.

In my conversations with writers over the years, and in my observations as a professional in the business, I have seen too many aspiring authors doggedly clinging to their dreams for a single book or series idea that does not work and that is holding back their careers. They have a project they love, love, love, but simply cannot sell. And rather than move on to new story ideas, they revisit this one over and over. They edit and polish, tear it apart and rebuild it, get feedback from one beta reader after another, all in the belief that this time they’re going to get the story right and finally make the sale.

And I should add two points here. First, I also see the opposite: writers who become discouraged after only one or two rejections and give up on worthwhile projects that simply need a bit more love. There is a balance to be found. Working too long on a book or series that enjoys no success can stall a burgeoning career. Giving up too soon can cost a writer an opportunity they didn’t even know they had.

Second, I have doggedly stuck with projects for years, doing just the sort of repeated reworking I describe above, and eventually selling the books to a publisher. I did it with the Justis Fearsson books. I did it with the new Celtic series.

His Father's Eyes, by David B. CoeThe difference between what I did with those two projects and what I am telling you not to do is this: I kept working on these books, but I also moved ahead with other projects, so that I wouldn’t stall my career. Yes, I worked for six years on the first Fearsson book. But in that time, I also wrote the Thieftaker books and the Robin Hood novelization. This, by the way, is also the secret to finding that balance I mentioned. By all means, keep working on the one idea, but do so while simultaneously developing others. Don’t become so obsessed with the one challenge that you lose sight of all else.

As a general business strategy, I believe the reckless stubbornness of the bluebird can prove effective. But when applied with too much fervor to a single book idea, it can become a trap, one that keeps us from realizing our dreams.

So endeth the lesson of the horny bluebird.

Keep writing.

Creative Wednesday: Books To Buy For The Writer In Your Life

‘Tis the season for giving, and for searching out gifts for the writer on your holiday shopping list. Or, if YOU are the writer on your holiday shopping list, searching out gifts for yourself!

And so I thought I would share with you a list of some of the books on my bookshelves that I would recommend most strongly as presents for a writer. These are not novels, though I could probably make that sort of list as well. These are reference books, tools a writer might use in the crafting of their current work in progress. [That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my website, www.DavidBCoe.com, has a bookstore, from which you can purchase many of my novels!]

Reference booksThese are books I turn to again and again during the course of my work, and I expect the writer on your list will do the same. Not all of them are easy to find, but I assure you, they’re worth the effort. So here is a partial list:

1) Standard Reference Books: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition (the hardcover, bound in red); Roget’s International Thesaurus: Seventh Edition (organized thematically, not by alphabet — trust me); The Chicago Manual of Style: Seventeenth Edition (although if you were to get, say, the fifteenth edition instead, you might save some money and not really lose out on much).

These are all invaluable books. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary includes not only definitions and the like, but also dates for when the words in question entered the English language. This is a huge asset for writers of historical fiction or fantasies set in worlds analogous to historical eras in our world.

Roget’s Thesaurus, with the thematic index rather than an alphabetical or “dictionary form” organization, demands a little extra work from the writer. Looking up words is a two step process — check the index to find the precise meaning of the word you’re trying to replace, and then go to the indicated page. But the advantages of having entries grouped conceptually are huge, if difficult to articulate. Suffice it to say, I often wind up finding the right word not with my original search, but with a secondary one that begins with a related idea or concept.

And the Chicago Manual not only offers style and usage guidance for almost every imaginable writing circumstance, it also shows how to prepare and format manuscripts professionally, and how to copyedit and proofread (and how to read a copyeditor’s or proofer’s marks), among other things. Every writer should have a copy, and actually, now that I think of it, I need an updated version!

2) What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects – From Paper Clips to Passenger Ships, Edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher. I found this book used several years back after it was recommended to me by a friend, who happens to be a writer as well. Basically, the book provides you with the correct name for every part of every common object you can imagine. I used it just the other day, while writing a new Thieftaker story for the Noir anthology. I needed to know the name of the “u”-shaped arm of a padlock, the piece that swings open and closed to lock something. It’s called a shackle. I hadn’t remembered that, and would have spent way too much time looking for the word online had I not owned this book.

3) English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. Like Merriam’s, this book provides the date for when common words entered the English lexicon. The added bonus that sets this book apart from the dictionary is its detailed index, which differentiates among various usages and meanings for the word in question. For instance, “lap” has an entry for the “lap” that a child sits on, and another for “lap” as a verb, as in a dog lapping up water, and still another for “lap,” as in an orbit around a track. Those usages entered the language at different times. This book gives a date for each. Handy, right?

4) The Cunningham Series of Magic Books. Scott Cunningham has written a series of books for magic practitioners that cover a wide array of topics. He has one on magical herbs and plants, another on gems and minerals, still another on oils, incense, and brews. He has books on Wicca and one on elemental magic, and others beyond these. I am not a practitioner, but I find the books immensely helpful when I am writing about magic, particularly for series that are set in our world, like the Thieftaker and Justis Fearsson books.

5) The HowDunIt series from Writer’s Digest. These books are meant for mystery writers and those who write police procedurals, but I believe they are also indispensable for writers of urban fantasy, horror, and even epic fantasy and science fiction. Available volumes touch on writing crime scenes, on writing about investigative procedures, on poisons, on murder forensics, on injuries and body trauma. I have seven of them, and I’ve used every one.

I could go on with more titles, but this is already a long post, and I have A LOT of books on my shelves. But here’s the thing: When it comes right down to it, there are no limits to the kind of books a writer might find valuable. I have history books, tourist guides to castles and cathedrals, an illustrated architecture book on a ninth century Frankish monastery, books on astronomy, books on weapons, books on military campaigns and tactics, a book on animal tracking, field guides to trees, flowers, edible plants, rocks, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, and birds . . . SO many birds . . .

If you know a writer, and you happen to be glancing through the bargain bin at your local bookstore, chances are you can find something that person is going to love and find useful. Because — surprise! — writers love books.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “Pitch Inside”

In the mid-1980s, my favorite baseball player on the planet was a young pitcher for the New York Mets named Dwight Gooden. Gooden had a meteoric career that was shortened by injuries and chronic drug abuse. But for the first two and a half years of his career, from the beginning of his rookie season in 1984 to mid-season in 1986, he was one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen. He was only 20 years old when he entered the league, but already he had outstanding velocity, a monster curveball, pinpoint control, and uncommon poise for a player so young.

Why am I starting a writing-tip post with a discussion of Dwight Gooden? Read on…

At the time of his great success, New York Magazine ran a profile of him and a teammate (an equally young, equally talented, equally troubled outfielder named Darryl Strawberry). In the profile there was a picture of Gooden in uniform and you could see scrawled on the underside of the visor of his baseball cap the words “Pitch inside.”

Pitching inside is, quite often, the best way to get hitters out, particularly if the pitcher in question happens to have great velocity and control. When pitched inside, hitters can’t extend their arms fully and thus can’t generate as much power in their swing. Usually. The problem with pitching inside is that if the pitcher doesn’t have quite enough velocity, or if he misses his intended target by even an inch or two, his offering becomes very hittable, often resulting in massive home runs, or at the very least, crisp base hits.

Pitchers can do okay for a while pitching hitters away, but they become great when they take on that risk and throw the ball inside.

High risk, high reward.

Writers need to take risks as well. We can tell a decent story playing it safe, but we flourish when we take chances, when we explore bold ideas for our stories, or create stunningly original worlds, or develop plots that are destined to surprise and captivate our readers.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)My first book, Children of Amarid, was a fairly standard epic fantasy, though it had the seeds of more within the nuances of its plot. It was my second novel, though, The Outlanders, that convinced me I could succeed as a writer. The reason was, that second book was different. It introduced a technological, crime-ridden world unlike anything I’d ever tried writing. It created an unusual dynamic among three of my lead characters — two of the characters, who were allies, spoke different languages, and they had to rely on the third for translation. But neither of them trusted that third character.

I struggled with that book far, far more than I had with the first, and I think my struggles were symptomatic of factors that helped the book succeed. It was an ambitious project. It forced me to grow as an artist. Nothing felt familiar or pat, and so the finished product read as something fresh and exciting and innovative. As I say, the first book was fine, but the series won the Crawford Award because of The Outlanders.

It’s easy to advise you to take chances, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Turning that advice into instruction in the form of concrete steps is more difficult. Every story is different, every project presents its own challenges.

Still, I can say this: It’s easy to grow attached to one particular franchise, one particularly world and set of characters and style of story. Certainly I have written a good deal in the Thieftaker world, and will soon be coming out with new work about Ethan Kaille, Sephira Pryce, et al. The fact is, though, each time I have moved on to a new project, I have tried (admittedly with varying degrees of success) to challenge myself, to force myself to grow.

After the LonTobyn books, I moved to Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands, which demanded far more sophisticated world building and character work. After those, I turned to Thieftaker, adding historical and mystery elements to my storytelling and limiting my point of view to a single character. I also started working on the Justis Fearsson books, which explored mental health issues and were my first forays into writing in a contemporary setting. Then I took on the Islevale books, time travel/epic fantasies that presented the most difficult plotting issues I’ve ever faced.

We can also challenge ourselves within a particular franchise by shaking up the formula, by changing our approach to plotting, or taking characters and character relationships in new and unexpected directions.

The point is, if we challenge ourselves, if we remind ourselves to “pitch inside,” we will breathe new life into our work, grow as artists, and, likely, have more fun.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Let’s Talk Trunk Novels

A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects.

Let me tell you about my trunk novels. Not all of them – that would take a while. But I have two in particular, the first two books of what I once thought might be a three- or four-book series, that I have been working on for the past week or so.

Many of us have trunk novels and don’t even know it. For those unfamiliar with the term, a trunk novel is a book – complete or partial – that we worked on for a time and then put away, for any number of reasons. The idea is, we shove them in a trunk somewhere – metaphorical? Metaphysical? – and try to forget about them.

Sometimes we put these projects away because we can’t sell them. Sometimes, we are so convinced that the books are deeply, deeply flawed, that we don’t even try to sell them. Sometimes we get feedback on the books – suggestions for revisions – that we’re unwilling or at least not ready to implement. Sometimes we write something, but the market is not right at that moment for the book in question.

I put these books away for several of those reasons. I LOVE the first book, but the market wasn’t right for it. And while I thought it had some great moments, I also knew that it needed serious revision. The prose needed tightening. It had too much exposition, which was slowing down sections that should have been punchy and concise. The second book… well, the second book was a hot mess. Again, I liked elements of it, loved certain passages and plot twists. But I never did figure out the ending. I knew it needed to be torn apart and put back together and I had neither the patience to undertake such a massive rewrite nor a concrete vision of what I wanted the book to look like.

I wrote these books several years back, and around the time I might have forced myself to tackle the revisions, we sold the Justis Fearsson series. Into the proverbial trunk they went. I got them out a couple of years later, but then we sold the Islevale novels and I shut the lid on the trunk once more.

Now, though, with the Thieftaker novellas in edits, with other projects lurking but failing to excite me, I have opened the trunk once more and taken out the books, determined this time to do something with them. My old impressions of the novels remain intact. I still love the first book, but see serious problems with the writing and the excess exposition. And I still see potential in the second book, but it remains a train wreck.

What are the books about? Well, they’re sort of a blend of Celtic fantasy and urban fantasy. Hence the marketing issues. Urban fantasy is well past its peak, and Celtic stories have long since flooded the market. There is no strong demand for either. That doesn’t mean, though, that there won’t be again. Or that my readers wouldn’t be interested in new novels, even if they are not on the cutting edge of what New York publishing considers “hot” and “trendy.” Self-publishing and small press publishing make it easier than ever to bypass the marketing gatekeepers and reach our readers.

Because, while the books need work (I’m about 20% through the revisions on book I), they are engaging and fun. I love my characters, I love the magic. I love the snark in the dialogue and the relationship between my two heroes (both women, one looking to rebuild her life, one bored to tears with hers). There is lots here to like. And the books might make a very nice premium for readers if I wind up creating a Patreon.

These posts are supposed to include tips for those of you trying to establish yourself as writers, and so here goes:

Chances are, you have trunk novels, too, even if you didn’t know them by that name. As writers we ought never to throw anything away. Yes, there are books and stories in my trunk that are irretrievably bad, that will never, ever see the light of day. But there are others that, despite their flaws or lack of market viability at a given time, represent quality work. I’d wager you have books like those, as well.

Don’t give up on those books. I know plenty of people who have sold trunk novels five or ten or even fifteen years after they first wrote them. A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects. Sometimes it just takes time to figure out where a story ought to have gone.

And in the meantime, reading those old stories and books can tell us things about ourselves as writers. We can see our own growth, recognizing the mistakes and shortcomings of things our younger selves did. And we can also see, from the distance of years, with fresh eyes, the raw potential and effective moments of stories we soured on long ago. Those insights have value in and of themselves, even if we decide in the end that those trunk stories still belong… well, in the trunk.

Do you have trunk stories and books? Might it be time to dig them out and take a look?

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: World Building Lessons I’d Forgotten

Back in early March, I posted about creating magic systems, and said then that I expected I would post about world building at least once more over the course of the year. And so here I am, making myself a prophet (because right now making myself a profit is proving difficult [rim shot]).

I am world building again, for the first time in a while, actually. The last time I created a world whole-cloth was when I began work on the Islevale Cycle, which was several years ago. I have a completed novel that my agent and I are shopping around, but that is set in our world with only a small speculative fiction element. My other most recent work has been in the Thieftaker universe, which I developed nearly a decade ago. I’ve written a couple of Fearsson short stories, but that world even pre-dates the Thieftaker world (though the books took longer to find their way into print).

My point being that it feels a little odd to be immersed again in world building, and several times over the past few weeks I have had to remind myself of lessons I thought I had internalized long ago. So I figured I would share some of these lessons with you.

1) Begin with questions: As I said in that March post, I love world building. There is something thrilling about starting from scratch with limitless possibilities. I had forgotten, however, how overwhelming the process can feel, particularly at the outset, when ideas are amorphous and we don’t yet grasp what we need to discover about our world. And so I like to start with a series of questions, which serve to rationalize and structure my task. (This, by the way, is how I approach research as well; I see research and world building as connected parts of the same creative act.) That list of questions is long, and early on, as I learn more and more about my world, the list continues to expand, the addition of new questions outpacing my ability to answer them. Eventually, though, the questions get answered and the contours of my world — literal and figurative — come into relief.

2) Organize from the outset: I am not nearly as organized as some assume I am, or as I would like to be. Too often, my impulse is to dive into my world building and research and jot down what I find as quickly as I can. The result is haphazard to say the least. I do much better when I slow myself down from the start and make an effort to keep orderly notes. That means using Scrivener as it is meant to be used, as a catch-all for ALL world building and research. Already with this new project, I have not been as good in this regard as I would like to be. But the first step toward curing myself is recognizing that I have a problem, right? Right??

3) Consult with smart people: This new project of mine is NOT fantasy. It’s science fiction, almost space-opera-ish. I know. I can’t believe it either. But there it is. And so I know even less about my subject matter than I usually do at this stage. I have been in touch with literal rocket scientists about this stuff, and I’m learning a lot. Chances are, no matter the nature of the project we’re working on, we know someone — or we know someone who knows someone — who can help us fill in gaps in our knowledge base. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, or acquaintances, or even perfect strangers. The truth is, most people like to talk about the things they know, they like to help people, and they often think it’s pretty cool to learn we’re writing a book about something that fascinates them. Moreover, institutions like police departments and medical examiners offices, not to mention museums, government agencies, and scientific institutions, often have public relations offices that are there to answer our questions. Avail yourself of these resources.

4) Let your brain go wild: Plotting our books takes time and precision. It’s hard work, in part because we are forced to reign in our creative impulses a bit in order to come up with narratives that are logical, that make sense to our readers. World building is hard, too, and it also requires a certain rationality. But, as I said before, it is a time of possibility. We can choose what it means to be logical in this new setting. Decisions that will become immutable once we begin to write, remain fluid for now. This is the stage in the process when our imaginations should be most at liberty to roam. Enjoy that freedom.

5) Finally, be patient: Most of the time, I measure my work output in terms of pages and word counts. Progress is tangible and easily quantified. World building isn’t like that. At this stage of a project, I spend much of my time staring out the window, thinking, trying to come up with ideas, with names, with histories and forms of government and religions and the like. It is an amorphous, sloppy process that is nearly impossible to measure in any concrete way. This bothers me — it always has. I grow impatient. I chide myself for not “getting more done.” I have been world building for this new series for, like, two weeks, and already I’m railing at myself for not being done. Just for the sake of comparison, I took three months to research the Thieftaker books, so I need to cut myself some slack. World building is work. It might not break down into units that are easily counted and banked, but it’s work nevertheless. And if you’re like me, and you chafe at that sort of thing… Well, give yourself a break. That’s what I plan to do. Because I have a lot more world building to do.

Keep writing!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Maps, Worldbuilding, and the Creation of Story

So you’re trapped in your home with too much time and too little to do. The world around you has gone to hell, and you’re fed up. Sound familiar?

Yeah, thought so. So why not take the opportunity to create your own world? You’re a writer. You have that power.

Not long ago, I wrote about creating magic systems, and that advice could come in handy in this process. But there is lots, lots more to worldbuilding than just magic. That’s the beauty of it. A created world can be as complex and rich and deep as you want it to be.

I am not going to try to squeeze every element of worldbuilding into this post. I could write ten essays on the subject and not exhaust it, and I promise to return to world building topics in future posts. For today, let’s start with this: I LOVE creating maps. That might sound weird, but it’s true. I’m not particularly skilled as a visual artist – which is to say that I have NO skill at all in that regard. But my maps are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

I start with graph paper when I can. (I’m sure you can get some through an online seller if you need it. Unlike other sorts of paper, it doesn’t seem to be a hoard-worthy product…) Why graph paper? Because it allows you to keep track of your scale as you create land features, rivers, oceans, cities, etc.

Map of IslevaleAnd then I just let my imagination run wild. At first I let my hand wander over the page, creating the broad outlines of my world. Sometimes I have to start over a couple of times before I come up with a design I like. But generally, I find that the less I impose pre-conceived notions on my world, the more successful my initial efforts. I draw land masses, taking care to make my shorelines realistically intricate. (Take a look at a map of the real world. Even seemingly “smooth” coastlines are actually filled with inlets, coves, islands, etc.) I put in rivers and lakes. I locate my mountain ranges, deserts, wetlands, etc.

And then comes the fun part. I start naming stuff.

Yeah, okay, it takes a certain level of geek to find naming stuff on a map fun. But bear with me. You see, place names and land feature names are stories waiting to happen. Sure, sometimes we call places by names that are stupidly obvious. The Rocky Mountains, for instance. Yeah, very original, not to mention informative. Distinguishes them from the Cheesy Mountains, I guess… On the other hand, each named peak in the Rockies DOES tell a story. So do place names that include a person’s name or that use geographic features to anthropomorphize.

Maybe your world has a hero whose exploits are so renowned that places are simply named for her, randomly, the way seemingly every state in the Union has a “Washington County” or a city named “Lincoln.” We need to learn the story of your hero.

Maybe your mountains are named for one or more of your mythical beings. What is (are) their story (stories)? Maybe you have a river that is named for a warrior who perished on its banks, or a range of hills that are said to be haunted.

My point is not that EVERY name you give has to convey a story. Sometimes a Rocky Mountain is simply a mountain that’s rocky. Sometimes a Whitewater Creek is simply a creek that has lots of rapids. But a fraction of your named features should have names that tell much, much more about your world than just what it looks like. A few of your names should hint at stories, at history or lore. My world maps tend to have three or four or even five separate nations, and each nation (handled in separate maps) tends to have maybe thirty names (cities, mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, bays, harbors, oceans, etc.). Even if only one out of five has a name worthy of a story… Well, you can do the math. That’s a good number of stories.

And then (and this is REALLY the fun part) you need to write those stories. They will give you some of your history for your world. Maybe they will give you some of your religion, or even your economy. They may hint at social customs, at holy days, at rites of passage. Certainly they will help you refine the authorial voice for writing in your world. They may even give you material to sell to short story markets. The first short story I ever published – “Night of Two Moons,” published in  back in 2002 – was a historical tale set in the Forelands. I have since sold short stories set in the Thieftaker world, the Fearsson world, and Islevale. And yes, as I remember it, that Forelands story grew out of something I first named on the original map.

Worldbuilding is tons of fun. Yes, it’s work, but it is well worth the effort. I have heard writers say, “Oh, I don’t do a lot of worldbuilding. I focus on character instead.” And each time I hear that, I think it’s the most ridiculous thing ever said. Writing is not a zero sum game. My worldbuilding doesn’t detract from my character work, thank you very much. But it does enrich my storytelling by making my settings more compelling and more realistic.

So while our real world is going to hell in a handbasket (another really, really odd phrase – I’ve started a list…), you can escape for a while by creating your own world. You’ll enjoy it, and, more important, you’ll get background for your world and material for short fiction.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Creating Magic Systems

I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot.

For today’s Writing Tip, I would like to offer the first of what I expect will be an intermittent series world building posts. I love world building. Of all the things we speculative fiction writers get to do, it may be the one I think of as the most fun. It can involve a ton of research (which, for many of us, adds to the fun), but it is, at its core, an act of pure creation. It is that stage of writing a book when we get to play “let’s pretend,” sometimes for days, even weeks, at a time. What’s not to love?

There are lots of elements to world building, of course, but for today’s purposes, I want to talk about creating our magic systems.

To many, magic is the defining feature of fantasy stories, the one story element that sets what we do apart from the work of other writers. I’m not entirely sure I believe that (and it could be a topic for a fun bar conversation), but I do agree that for fantasies that include magic, developing a consistent and believable magic system is absolutely essential to the success of our narrative.

So, what are the most important ingredients of a good magic system?

Let me start here: Everything I’m about to say is just my opinion. These are the things that I strive to put into my magic systems. There are other ways to do this, and I would never be so arrogant as to suggest that if you don’t set up your magic with the properties I use in mine, you’re doing it wrong. So with every declarative statement I’m about to make, please insert a silent “In my opinion” or “To my way of thinking.”

I try to make my magic systems limited, costly, ordered, and realistic (to the extent that anything magical can be). I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot. In my opinion.

All of my magic system requirements are interlocked, but the first two in particular are closely related.

By limited, I mean just that. Magic can be powerful, it can be frightening. It can be wondrous. It should NOT be the answer to every problem our magic-wielding characters encounter. It can’t be omnipotent. At least not if I’m to keep to what I said above about not allowing magic to take over my story. So the first thing I like to do with my magic system is figure out specifically what magic can do. In the Thieftaker and Fearsson books, that has meant coming up with a partial list of spells, and giving all of them a similar amount of reach and impact. For the Winds of the Forelands series, it meant coming up with different categories of Qirsi magic – mists and winds, language of beasts, shattering, healing, etc. It’s not that every person’s magic is the same, or even that my list of abilities is necessarily comprehensive. Part of the fun of writing these books is discovering new flavors of magic as each series progresses. But in determining what most magics are like, I begin to define the boundaries of what magic can do and what it can’t.

Magics should be costly because even a relatively limited magic can take over a story if your magic-wielder can draw upon it over and over and over without consequence. By imposing a cost for magic – fatigue, blood loss, the shortening of one’s life (as in Winds of the Forelands) or the loss of years (as with the time travel in my Islevale Cycle) – I force my characters to use their magic strategically and, even more important, to rely on other qualities as they seek to overcome whatever problems I place in their paths. Magic without cost is empty, it’s boring. Any victories achieved with it will wind up feeling cheap and unearned, which we don’t want.

An ordered magic system is internally consistent. Limits that apply in one situation will, generally speaking, apply in all situations. The costs of magic are extracted from all. Sure, a more experienced or more powerful sorcerer/mage/conjurer/weremyste might deal with those costs better than others. There is nothing wrong with hierarchies. The problems arise when there is no rationale for discrepancies in what magic does for one person or another. Now, I will also say that quite often we set up our rules and costs and limits, only to introduce a villain who finds her way around those things. That’s fine, as long as we can explain within the logic of the system exactly what makes her exceptional. The fact that there are rules doesn’t necessarily mean that our hero knows all of those rules. By giving our villain this sort of advantage, we make her that much more dangerous, and we force our hero to find a way, within the rules, to overcome her foe’s powers. Our hero might have to learn something new, or find an innovative way to apply old rules. These are the sorts of conflicts I relish as a writer.

All of these structural elements are intended to make our magic systems as realistic as possible, but realism goes beyond them. Magic should seem to the reader to be as endemic to the worlds we create as air and water, as the cycle of days and seasons, as the oceans and deserts and forests we describe. It should be elemental, integral to the larger world. Just as gravity applies to all on our planet (until we find some way within the rules of physics to defy gravity), so should magic and its rules apply believably across the board in our worlds. This is why Thieftaker magic looks just like 18th century descriptions of witchcraft – I wanted my magic to blend with my historical world.

I’ll end this by returning to a point I raised early on: Magic is a plot device, something we use to make our work original and intriguing and fun, for us and for our readers. It is no replacement for good plotting and convincing character work. In fact, I’ll take this a step further: in most of my stories, at the end, magic will fail my characters. They will find themselves driven to the very limits of their magical abilities, and these talents will prove insufficient. In order to prevail, they will need to draw upon other qualities: wit, resourcefulness, courage, strength. Only by combining these other, more ordinary, human attributes with their magic, can they emerge triumphant. Because magic is not, cannot be, the most important thing. We are writing about people, first and foremost. And we want their victories to reflect who and what they are. It’s easy to write a magical victory. Writing a human victory – that’s the great challenge.

Keep writing! Hope to see many of you at Saga this weekend!